Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 28, 2012

Brothers Get a Second Chance

When Army Spc. John Thorne arrived at the hospital in Germany, he was taken into a room with a Navy Major chaplain and two military liaisons.

“We want to prepare you for what you’re about to see,” the chaplain told him.

John replied, “Sir, I’ve seen this shit before.” He’d been in the Army for three years at this point, and had seen combat. In fact, he’d been serving in Iraq when he received the news two days earlier that his younger brother, Army Spc. James Thorne, had stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan. He thought he knew what to expect, but didn’t know how bad it would be.

When John got to his brother’s hospital room, it was pitch black. He put on a gown and gloves and a hat – obligatory when visiting burn victims – and walked in.

James was lying in the bed with a neck brace, hooked to a breathing tube and an array of monitors. His right leg all the way up to his pelvis was in an external fixator, which is like a metal cage with pins through it to hold the bones in place. He was suffering from tissue, ligament and muscle damage, as well as mild traumatic brain injury.

“I walk up in there and the only thing that’s covered is his groin area. And he’s just laying there, lifeless,” said John. “I walk up to the bed and I just broke down in tears. I tried to hold myself together.” He grabbed his unconscious brother’s hand, and says he felt him clench back.

James had a 35 percent chance of living, and John was terrified of losing him.

“I felt responsible for raising him, in a way,” John told me. “Because my parents were always working, they weren’t around.”

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When Army Spc. John Thorne arrived at the hospital in Germany, he was taken into a room with a Navy Major chaplain and two military liaisons.

“We want to prepare you for what you’re about to see,” the chaplain told him.

John replied, “Sir, I’ve seen this shit before.” He’d been in the Army for three years at this point, and had seen combat. In fact, he’d been serving in Iraq when he received the news two days earlier that his younger brother, Army Spc. James Thorne, had stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan. He thought he knew what to expect, but didn’t know how bad it would be.

When John got to his brother’s hospital room, it was pitch black. He put on a gown and gloves and a hat – obligatory when visiting burn victims – and walked in.

James was lying in the bed with a neck brace, hooked to a breathing tube and an array of monitors. His right leg all the way up to his pelvis was in an external fixator, which is like a metal cage with pins through it to hold the bones in place. He was suffering from tissue, ligament and muscle damage, as well as mild traumatic brain injury.

“I walk up in there and the only thing that’s covered is his groin area. And he’s just laying there, lifeless,” said John. “I walk up to the bed and I just broke down in tears. I tried to hold myself together.” He grabbed his unconscious brother’s hand, and says he felt him clench back.

James had a 35 percent chance of living, and John was terrified of losing him.

“I felt responsible for raising him, in a way,” John told me. “Because my parents were always working, they weren’t around.”

But James did end up making it. I met both him and John at an event for wounded warriors in Las Vegas, sponsored by the Palazzo Hotel and organized by the Armed Forces Foundation. At first it was hard to believe they were brothers. John, 25, is broad-shouldered and expressive, barreling from one emotion to the other and dominating the conversation. James, 24, spends a lot of time sitting back and listening to his older brother talk. He’s wiry and has a neck tattoo (music notes) and wears a t-shirt advertising some hardcore metal band. His left leg was amputated, and he uses a wheelchair to get around. The first time I saw the resemblance was when they laughed – both tilt their heads back slightly and open their mouths into half-moon smiles. That, and when they finished each other’s sentences.

James was leading a foot patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan when he stepped on an IED. He doesn’t remember much after the blast, except for his platoon sergeant yelling “lay on your stomach” and one of his friends calling out for him.

“All I hear is my buddy,” said James. “He’s just screaming out, ‘where are you buddy?’ and I’m screaming out ‘I’m here!’ That’s it.”

There is a lot James doesn’t remember because he was barely conscious for the first two months after his injury. Even when he began talking and asking for his family, his recollection of their visits is hazy.

“I was hallucinating so much,” he said. “I was thinking people were in the ceiling.” He said sometimes he saw Taliban up there.

Though John had joined the Army first, he was still anxious when his younger brother decided to follow him into it two years later.

“He’s always been the crazy one,” explained John. When they were kids in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and it would snow five or six feet, John said his younger brother was always the one who wanted to jump off the cliff in the backyard. “I said ‘if you jump, I’m not going after you.’ He took a running start and off he went.”

James always landed fine. But Afghanistan was different.

“A lot of people look at me and think ‘oh, you just lost a leg, it’s not that big of a deal,’” James told me. “I have worse injuries than it looks like.”

Because of his injuries, James has to wear colostomy and urostomy bags. “I can’t use the bathroom. That sucks,” he said bluntly. “A lot of guys I see…they lose two legs, but they don’t have as bad an injury as I do. I’d rather have that any day.”

When James left the hospital, he was given a Purple Heart for his valor and extraordinary sacrifice. But his brother, John, was appalled by the medal. “For me, he deserves so much more than a Purple Heart,” he said. “I started looking at it, and I thought, man, this isn’t worth it.”

James has a more subdued take on the honor.

“Medals don’t mean much to me, I was just doing my job,” he told me. “What means more to me is that I’m still alive. I have a second chance to do what I want.”

What he wants to do is music – anything involving it. James plays guitar and piano, and his favorite genre is underground metal. He plans to go to college for it, and wants to end up working somewhere in the industry.

“It’s just something I’ve always had a passion for,” he said. “It’s like a drug. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do with my life. If I didn’t have that, I probably wouldn’t be here right now, honestly.”

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Inhaling Fire in Afghanistan

Ask Marine Corps Cpl. Eric Hilton what it felt like to inhale fire, and he’ll say, “It was hot.” Ask him how Afghanistan was, and he’ll say, “I had a blast.” The 23-year-old Marine had stopped to buy cigarettes at a crowded bazaar in Kajaki, Afghanistan when he was hit by what he initially thought was a car. A few moments later he woke up on the ground.

“[The locals] can’t drive very well over there. They drive like idiots,” he told me. “I sat up, saw the blood on my leg, and I realized that’s not from a car accident.”

Eric had been hit by a suicide bomber in the middle of the teeming marketplace, only 10 days before the end of his seven-month deployment. The blast killed two other Marines and left 30 civilians dead or injured.

“We’re supposed to be coming home in ten days,” he said. “You don’t think anything’s going to happen to you.”

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Ask Marine Corps Cpl. Eric Hilton what it felt like to inhale fire, and he’ll say, “It was hot.” Ask him how Afghanistan was, and he’ll say, “I had a blast.” The 23-year-old Marine had stopped to buy cigarettes at a crowded bazaar in Kajaki, Afghanistan when he was hit by what he initially thought was a car. A few moments later he woke up on the ground.

“[The locals] can’t drive very well over there. They drive like idiots,” he told me. “I sat up, saw the blood on my leg, and I realized that’s not from a car accident.”

Eric had been hit by a suicide bomber in the middle of the teeming marketplace, only 10 days before the end of his seven-month deployment. The blast killed two other Marines and left 30 civilians dead or injured.

“We’re supposed to be coming home in ten days,” he said. “You don’t think anything’s going to happen to you.”

At the pool bar outside the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas last week, Eric showed me his injuries. A thick line of stitching scars about 10-inches long runs up his right leg where he took shrapnel; his ear drums were damaged in the blast. He also suffered second-degree burns on his face, abrasions on his arm, and temporary hoarseness in his throat from the fire.

Eric was much more reserved than some of the other wounded warriors I met on the Palazzo-sponsored Salute the Troops trip. He’s tall and tan with closely cropped blonde hair and a habit of responding to questions with terse, sometimes inscrutable, answers (“cryptic” is how he describes himself). When he told me he uses humor as a coping mechanism for his experience, I asked him for a few examples. “I told them I wanted to leave Afghanistan with a bang,” he said, but he didn’t smile.

Eric joined the Marine Corps halfway through his junior year in high school, when he was 18-years-old. Out of a string of ambitions – lawyer, football player, computer engineer – joining the military was the one he’d always come back to. (Why the Marines? “It’s the best…Plus the uniform, the dress blues.”). While he doesn’t come from a military family, he is very close with his mother and siblings, who were with him when he deployed.

“They all cried when I was leaving,” said Eric. “And I wasn’t really able to handle it so I started laughing to keep from crying.”

After he was hit in Afghanistan and taken to a hospital in Germany, he said his family was anxious about how he would respond to the trauma. “They were a little paranoid about what to say, they didn’t know how I would react,” said Eric. “After they realized I would joke about it, they weren’t as timid.”

It took about a week of physical therapy before Eric was walking again, albeit with a limp and crutches. His second day, he tried to go through the physical therapy without pain medication – “That was a bad idea,” he said.

So why did he do it? “I’m a Marine. I gotta try it.”

Still, Eric stresses that he has no desire to return to combat. “Once is enough for me,” he said. “I was lucky to get out. If I go back I might not be as lucky.”

Instead, he wants to go to school for optometry – first to a local community college in Texas where he’s currently based, and then to Ohio State, which is closer to his family. He said he doesn’t expect to have problems finding a job, despite all the news stories about the high unemployment rate among young veterans.

“What are you most proud of about your experience?” I asked as we were wrapping up the interview, and immediately winced at the triteness of the question.

Eric paused for the longest time before answering: “Being alive.”

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